Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Newly Elected Olympia City Councilmembers Coordinate Coup on Isthmus Issue

Above: Smiles and cooperation abound before tonight's Olympia City Council meeting with Councilmember Rhenda Strub, left, helping newly elected councilmember Stephen Buxbaum, and Councilmember Craig Ottavelli helping Councilmember Jeannine Roe. Terry Gregerson, middle, of the city's Information Technology department, is most likely helping all of them.

By Janine Gates

Community members packed into the city council chamber tonight for the council's first meeting of the year, and not only witnessed the swearing in of newly elected councilmembers Stephen Buxbaum, Karen Rogers, Jeannine Roe and Joe Hyer, but also witnessed a democratically choreographed coup of sorts.

After public comment by 14 citizens and other business, councilmembers Buxbaum, Rogers and Roe led the effort to begin reversing the efforts of the previous council regarding the fate of the controversial isthmus area in downtown Olympia.

With three stunning motions, which all passed, the newly reconstituted council accomplished more for many citizen activists in one meeting than in a whole year of trying to work with the previous council on isthmus-related issues. (See previous articles at www.janineslittlehollywood.blogspot.com in 2009 on the isthmus issue.)

In what was an obviously well-planned, coordinated approach, Councilmember Stephen Buxbaum began by requesting a motion for city staff to bring back, next week, an interim rezone agreement to revert the zoning on the isthmus to what it was prior to January 1, 2009, have it remain in effect through the completion of the 2010 Comprehensive Plan and have staff select a date for a public hearing on the ordinance within 45 days.

Councilmember Roe seconded the motion. Councilmember Hyer said he would support the motion but would ask for an executive session before the next meeting to discuss potential legal issues. The vote passed unanimously after clarifications and discussion.

Then, Councilmember Karen Rogers made a motion to withdraw the city’s limited Shoreline Master Plan amendment request to the state Department of Ecology for the isthmus area. Councilmember Buxbaum seconded the motion.

A letter to the city dated June 10, 2009 from Gordon White, manager for Ecology's Shorelands and Environmental Assistance program, essentially kicks the amendment back to the city, and expresses Ecology's difficulties in processing the city's request. Pursuing the application and answering Ecology's questions would require significant city staff time to provide more information.

The motion passed unanimously after some discussion.

Councilmember Strub, looking stunned at the relatively swift passage of the previous motions, actually did not express a verbal "yea" or "nay" vote on either of the motions. Her vote, however, was registered as a "yea" since she did not abstain, Mayor Mah explained to this reporter later.

Council cooperation dissipated after Councilmember Jeannine Roe made a motion to direct the city manager to submit a letter to the Legislature, conveying the council's endorsement of Senator Karen Fraser’s SB5800 and its companion bill HB 2081. Councilmember Buxbaum seconded the motion.

"I'd like to go all the way with you...but I cannot do this...I can't agree because this bill is a usurpation of our local authority. We have the right to make determinations," said Councilmember Strub after Roe's motion. "You three fought for the right to sit here," lectured Strub, looking at Councilmembers Roe and Buxbaum, 'but I won't give it up...I don't want to give it to them.'"

Rogers said she appreciated Strub's concern but explained that, "In 1972, the state created a shoreline master plan for a reason. Shorelines are special. They belong to the whole state. They didn't quite trust local governments to (safeguard them). You don't give away the crown jewels. Let's be clear - this is a shoreline of statewide significance."

Councilmember Ottavelli agreed with Strub that he could not support the motion. Mayor Mah said he had concerns with the Senate bill's creation of a special height district, and with it, restricts heights to a maximum of 35 feet.

After a lengthy discussion, Councilmember Strub attempted to wrap it up, and explained to the new councilmembers that they could vote against their own motion, which brought general laughter, but then, she seemed to personally threaten the new-comers by slowly saying, "So I'm going to look at you one last time: don't--push--too--far. I've welcomed you with open arms. There's time for this later...."

Unfazed, Councilmember Buxbaum said, "It may be appropriate to point out that (the Senate's) companion bill does not have the height district language. And I hope as we develop as a council, none of these actions will be construed as personal. We're all working toward the common good...and we may agree to disagree."

The vote passed 4 - 3 with Councilmembers Strub, Ottavelli and Mah voting no.

Waterfront activists and community members, gathered outside council chambers in the hallway after the meeting, expressed relief and excitement that their voices were finally being heard by the newly elected council.

“It’s democracy at its best isn’t it? This should give everyone hope that the impossible is possible,” said Bonnie Jacobs of Friends of the Waterfront, after the meeting, which adjourned at about 9:20 p.m.

Above: Councilmember Jeannine Roe, left, and Councilmember Karen Rogers, center, greet community members during a council recess tonight.


  1. Great report, Janine. Interesting information about how the vote registers as affirmative in the absence of explicitly abstaining.

    Thank you for including the detail about the appearance of Councilmember Strub's threatening tone. I thought the meeting was amazingly copacetic up until that point.

  2. Thank you Janine for your article on the "New Council" for Olympia.
    We know that democracy in city government is very important;
    more important then we all realized after the Isthmus Rezone last year
    that made very little sense to most of us.
    Let us continue to support our Good Government Candidates, and
    encourage our neighbors to be aware of the New City Council.
    Thank you voters.

  3. Your account of the first council meeting is so much richer and deeper than the “O” article it is hard to believe that the “O” can claim to be a major paper.

  4. Could someone please answer these 2 questions:

    1) How does limiting the height to 35' protect the view? I may be dense but at 6' tall a 35' building blocks the view as much as a taller building. I actually walked the site to test this amazing theory of geometry.; and

    2) What are your alternate plans (given the developer could easily develop with approval from the hearings examiner) to fix the ISTHMUS EYESORE and the CURRENT VACANT buildings that ALREADY block the view?

    I'm not trying to be a trouble maker, it's just that I often see the politics in Olympia as opposing and blocking things rather than advocating an alternative view. I guess protesting things is more fun and requires less cranial exercise?

  5. Wow! Thanks for your great coverage, Janine!

    Janet Blanding

  6. Janine, thanks so much for the detailed report.

    Ironic that, after my spending so much time and energy to preserve the Isthmus/Capitol views and promote the election of those of you who would help do so, I missed the frosting on the cake: the January 8th swearing in, celebration, reception, and first meeting of this historic city council. It would have been a nice reward for all our efforts.

    Thank you so much for the play by play account, which brings such joy and continued hope. It's wonderful that we are seeing democracy in action, at its best. Thanks for your part in it, your documenting the development, and your beautiful photographs.

    I identify with all the comments preceding mine. To respond to the last two Anonymous questions, I would say that I, too, am aware that any building height blocks one's view, standing next to it. However, a big difference in impact of taller buildings is the view as seen from the Capitol Campus (seeing the beauty of the Isthmus, Budd Inlet and the Olympic Mountains) or from the water, coming in by boat for instance (seeing that magnificent Capitol).

    These views are not blocked by lower buildings but are blocked by "The Mistake by the Lake" (yes, we definitely need to get rid of it). This can be seen in photos posted to illustrate that and the projected views as impacted by the proposed Larida Passage buildings. Perhaps that photo (or a link to it) could be included here, Janine?

    Thanks so much - and for this Blog and opportunity to comment. Keep up the great work!

    Gretchen Christopher (not anonymous :o)

  7. New council coordinates a coup! Jeannine Roe now wonders what to do.

    I love driving by her and Karen Fraser's precious isthmus. Buildings that are FALLING DOWN and empty parking lots.